What Did the Presidents Eat?

This month we observe the birthdays of two of our greatest presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Being food-oriented, I was curious to find out what these two great men liked to eat and found a wonderful site that details the eating habits of our presidents.

How and what we eat is determined by so many factors – our ethnic and cultural roots, geography, economics, our likes and dislikes, and trends of the day. Viewing history through food and recipes provides a glimpse into our past that is often more real and immediate than stories of the great and the good. It’s the history of our everyday, the history of everyone. With all the things that divide us, we are united in our need for – and often love of – food.

What our presidents ate is their history as men, as well as statesmen, and perhaps the most interesting view into an early president’s life comes from Martha Washington. As a bride, Martha inherited a family manuscript of recipes at the beginning of her first marriage to Robert Custis in 1749. The manuscript was likely already more a historical document than an everyday kitchen aid and was firmly rooted in English cuisine in addition to the fledgling cuisine of the New World.

Over the next 50 years, Martha continued updating the manuscript and in 1799, presented it to her granddaughter as a wedding gift. Think of it – as a 19 year old bride she inherited a guide dating back to the time of Elizabeth I and James I, words of advice passed down from grandmothers to mothers across ages and oceans. Her stewardship of the manuscript saw the death of her first husband, the courtship and marriage to her second, and a front row seat to the War of Independence. It was with her during her days as the first First Lady, the deaths of her children, her second husband, and her retirement back to Mount Vernon.  

It continued to be passed down from generation to generation and in the 1980’s was transcribed and annotated by food historian, Karen Hess and passed on to all of us. It’s available from Columbia University Press and it’s a fascinating read.

So what did the president’s eat? While neither was a gourmand, Washington seemed to have more interest in eating for pleasure; Lincoln saw food strictly as fuel though he did love apples. Washington loved to eat from the bounty of his estate – truly farm to table – and was surprisingly fond of cherries.


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